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Culinary healing

  • Published at 12:09 pm January 16th, 2019
AT - January 2019
Photo: Courtesy

A story of love, loss and recipes

Cooking is a therapeutic form of art. From a lifetime of experience, Fawzia Mowla Lisa can vouch for that. With Lisa’s Hotpot Catering Service verging on almost 20 years of operations, catering to events both large and small, she is well-versed in this art form. From paapri chaat to Nawabi delicacies, Lisa has done it all. 

Lisa Mowla has a twinkle in her eyes, and much wisdom to share, when she talks about food. In December 2017, she launched her book “Recipes from Bangladesh”. A little over a year since then, she sits down to share her thoughts with Avenue t. Here’s what she had to say.

Where do you draw your inspiration from? 

Growing up, food had a very important place in my home, and in my childhood. I was surrounded by superlative chefs and connoisseurs of fine dining. My mother, both of my grandmothers and one of my mother’s aunts were all remarkable cooks in their own rights. 

Another individual who has had a lot of influence on me was a chef from Lucknow, Bashir Baburchi. He was very attached to our family, and I was very attached to him. I used to follow him around the kitchen, and he taught me certain lost intricacies of cooking that most chefs keep as secrets up their sleeves. He was the one who taught me that adding chondon er gura in haleem or adding shorishar tel to koftas gave these dishes whole new dimensions of flavour. 

My father, the late Golam Mostafa, was a foodie and gourmand. Would you believe that when my mother married him, she didn’t know how to cook? It was my father then, who guided her on how best to cook fish, or what measurements of spices to use. Fast forward to many years later and people still tell me how they can never forget the taste of my mother’s cooking. 

Your cooking has been praised for years—what catalyzed your decision to publish your book more recently?

I began writing Recipes from Bangladesh back in 2005, but the process was shelved amidst a number of hurdles. I lost my son in 2014. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to lose their child. At that time, it felt as if my life was over. 

My son, late Faiz Mohammad, was the final loving push. He had always encouraged me to write a book - he thought it would be horrible if one day I came to forget the ingredients to one of my dishes. After he passed away, my daughter-in-law encouraged me to pick up the manuscript again. So I dusted the pages and resumed working on it. It was what my son would have wanted. 

As a single mother, so much of your life has revolved around your son. How has that been?

Raising my son was my greatest pleasure, he was a wonderful child. I never felt any of life’s hurdles because I centred all my focus on him. That’s not to say I was breathing down his neck all the time. I had my life, and he had his, but we met somewhere along the middle and those were the best parts of my life. He was the perfect gentleman, a loving son, husband and father. 

He was my inspiration and my critic. My son loved my Hyderabadi chicken biryani and mutton karai gosht, and I loved cooking for him. The thing about life though, is that somehow it goes on. I have a grandson now, and on most days he is the only reason I step into the kitchen. 

When it comes to cooking, what are the values you hold near and dear? 

I absolutely detest fusion cooking. When food travels across cultures, it changes at every step. Every culture alters it to suit their needs depending on what is available to them. When you throw fusion into the mix, it just makes a mess out of everything! You lose the essence of a dish entirely. 

Once, someone told me they didn’t use ghee in their halwa. Can you believe that? Ghee and halwa is such an iconic combination, I’d rather they didn’t have halwa at all than ruin it that way. 

I firmly believe that the art of cooking is a continuous learning process, there’s something new to learn every day, a lesson to be learnt from everyone. For example, if you want the taste of simple, authentic Bangla cuisine, you sit down with the maids. A dash of this, a sprinkle of that and they’ll come up with a perfect ball of shutki bhorta

The other day, my maid’s daughter came up to me with a recipe for cake she found on YouTube, and once we put it to test it came out perfectly. After all these years, I finally got a cake recipe I’m satisfied with. It’s become my go-to for cakes and cupcakes now. 

What did you have in mind while writing the book? What did you learn in the process?

I love pure and simple cooking, and that’s one thing that I tried to emulate in my book, both with the recipes I chose and the measurements I mentioned. I decided to keep it precise. 

It’s been very popular overseas. So many of our children are settled abroad, no doubt they miss the taste of their mother’s cooking. It’s fascinating when I get their feedback, to hear how they recreated the perfect dish from my words. 

While writing my book, I realized how tough the process is. Whenever I had any doubts about ingredients or portions, I was back in the kitchen to experiment. Working on my manuscript reminded me of how I used to write recipes I learned from my grandmothers back when I was in class four. 

Are there any new projects in the pipeline?

Yes. I’m thinking about writing another recipe book. I want to do 101 recipes on Hilsha Fish, a tribute to our national fish. I hope I can see that through. I’ve also been asked by a lot of people to translate Recipes from Bangladesh into Bangla, so I’m in the process of trying to get that done. 

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